Book Review: Pictures at an Exhibition

Pictures at Exhibition Thank you to the author, Camilla Macpherson for sending this book to me! It came all the way from London! What a treat!

The start of every chapter of Pictures at an Exhibition comes with a QR-Code that you can scan and will take you directly to the painting from the National Gallery’s site and give you all the information about the painting and the artist. What a lovely touch! Alternatively, you can see each of the paintings on Camilla’s site here as well, which is how I viewed them. Her site is also so wonderfully designed around old letters and paintings. It’s really very nicely done. I love her “Contact” with the address written on an old letter with stamps and postmarks.

Pictures at an Exhibition is the story of Claire, and the affair that develops between her and a woman named Daisy, from reading Daisy’s war-time letters. These letters were originally written to Claire’s husband’s grandmother, Elizabeth. Daisy would write to Elizabeth at the start of each month detailing her life in London during WWII and of her monthly visits to the National Gallery. Each month the Gallery would hang one single picture and make it available to the public. Each month, Daisy would go to the Gallery, view the painting and write Elizabeth all about it, of her feelings about the painting and also about life in London, the city that Elizabeth has left when she wed her Canadian man.

Following Elizabeth’s passing, package containing these monthly letters arrives for her grandson, Rob. These letters arrive at a key turning point in Rob and Claire’s marriage. Just five months prior, Claire was expecting their first child, was quite along in her pregnancy when a terrible tragedy occurred, causing her to miscarry the child. Claire has named the baby Oliver and is overcome with grief at his loss. Utterly consumed with grief she cannot forgive her husband Rob, for he had made himself unavailable at this critical time for Claire. Indirectly, and perhaps directly, she blames Rob for the death of her unborn child and their marriage is crumbling from the weight of it.

Intrigued, Claire begins to read Daisy’s letters. They become the single source of happiness in Claire’s life. She takes it upon herself to read one letter each month and to go see the same painting at the National Gallery that Daisy has written to Elizabeth about. One day, Claire meets a dashing man at the Gallery, named Dominic, and quickly things begin to spiral out of control for Claire. She finds herself quite dependant upon Daisy, her growing affair with Dominic and the increasingy distance between her and Rob.

“‘I think I’ve let it mean too much, Rob. I’m sorry. I’ve thought of nothing else for months. It’s just that she was there for me, when I needed someone.’ It felt almost embarrassing, saying these things, admiting to what she felt for someone who had never really been there, whom she had never met, who had not even written the letters to her.”

However, as her life more and more begins to resemble Daisy’s, Claire also begins to realize her life is with Rob and forgiveness is long over-due. She slowly draws Rob back in to her life and shares the wonder and mystery about Daisy. Together they go to see the final paintings and work to uncover what happened to Daisy – did she survive the war? Did she marry her lover?

“Home now. Home to her husband and his familiar hands and arms and voice, home at last. Home for good.”

I enjoyed Pictures at an Exhibition, a lovely story all around. I thoroughly enjoyed reading Daisy’s letters alongside Claire, and while you may experience some fluster with Claire in the middle of the book with her crippling inability to move on, she does capture your heart and the story ends quite well. Thank you again to Camilla for sending it my way, much appreciated!

butterflyHere is one of the pieces of art that is written about in Pictures at an Exhibition. It is titled, “The Painter’s Daughter’s” by Gainsborough. (sorry, it is very small) You can however find out about it from the National Gallery’s archives here.

Book Review: All The Light There Was


 “…the sound of those boots reverberated in my head for months, and then for years, and sometimes even still. This is the story of how we lived the war, and how I found my husband.”

These words, as they closed out Chapter 1, had me immediately falling in love with All The Light There Was. The love affair with Nancy Kricorian’s novel continued to the very end. Indeed, I was moved many times while reading, and finished the final chapters sitting in my car, waiting for my daughter to finish her cheer practice. In there, I was openly crying during these final chapters for Ms. Kricorian has written a beautifully moving tale.

Thank you to Net Galley, Houghton, Mifflin & Harcourt (and the Canadian publishing arm Thomas Allen & Son) and finally, Windsor Public Library for allowing me the joy of reading this book.  All The Light There Was is a wonderfully touching tale of an Armenian family surviving the Nazi occupation of Paris during WWII.

All the Light There Was is the story of an Armenian family’s struggle to survive the Nazi occupation of Paris in the 1940s—a lyrical, finely wrought tale of loyalty, love, and the many faces of resistance.

On the day the Nazis march down the rue de Belleville, fourteen-year-old Maral Pegorian is living with her family in Paris; like many other Armenians who survived the genocide in their homeland, they have come to Paris to build a new life. The adults immediately set about gathering food and provisions, bracing for the deprivation they know all too well. But the children—Maral, her brother Missak, and their close friend Zaven—are spurred to action of another sort, finding secret and not-so-secret ways to resist their oppressors. Only when Zaven flees with his brother Barkev to avoid conscription does Maral realize that the Occupation is not simply a temporary outrage to be endured. After many fraught months, just one brother returns, changing the contours of Maral’s world completely.

So, try as I may, I have been unable to give up Goodreads. So yes, I did venture on the site to read other reader’s comments/reviews about the book, while I was reading. However, I cannot say I agree with many of these comments, especially those calling the book predictable and shallow? Really? Were we reading the same book? I felt nothing of the sort while reading. Instead, I was completely engaged and unable to put the book down.

Was it predictable due to the love story/path Maral was on to marry her husband? Not particularly.  How many women must have been betrothed to men that went off to war, never to return? I felt the story of Maral’s love and devotion for Zaven incredibly touching and very emotional. The story of how Maral mourns the loss of Zaven when he first leaves and then when he does not return, but also when she embraces her role  of duty and honour when she then marries his brother Barkev was incredibly emotional and really tugged at my heart. I felt it perfectly detailed how Maral was torn by her decision to stay true to Zaven and also Barkev when a dashing, wonderful man named Andon comes in to her life. Andon keeps true and waits patiently for Maral as she struggles between duty and true love.

Is it due to the part of the story where this Armenian family saved their neighbour’s young girl from the fate that awaited her Jewish parents? Well of course we’ve read a number of WWII stories where the heroic and unselfish acts that some braved in order to save the Jews from their horrific end. All The Light There Was wonderfully blended this aspect of Maral’s story. It was incredibly genuine, touching and very emotional, in my opinion. As well,  the characters in this novel were perfectly rendered. So much so that they continue to haunt my thoughts.

Truthfully, I haven’t really been able to become involved in another book following the end of All The Light There Was because it had such a powerful impact on me. I absolutely loved it, it was a beautiful and heartfelt story of a family struggling to endure daily life during Nazi occupation. 4  stars. A Literary Hoarders Approved Read for certain. I also learned a great deal about the Armenian people and how they were affected by the war and of their way of life, traditions and the many wonderful Armenian proverbs.

Book Review: The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II


Thanks to the power of Pinterest and Denise Kiernan’s lovely spouse, two copies of The Girls of Atomic City came to us right away after exclaiming our interest in wanting to read this one! (one has been sent out to San D. for Elizabeth to enjoy….it’s on its way Liz!)

I saw the cover of this fascinating story pinned on Pinterest and read a brief description and was immediately drawn to it. How fascinating would this story be or what, right? Joseph D’Agnese, Ms. Kiernan’s lovely spouse worked really hard to ensure we got a copy of this in our hot little hands and quite quickly at that too. Thank you, thank you so much for that Joseph!

“other women on other trains kept pulling in to the very same station, their routes like veins running down the industrial arm of the East Coast, extending from the heart of the Midwest, the precious lifeblood of a project about which the women knew nothing, all of them coursing toward a place that officially did not exist.”

Denise Kiernan had me at (hello, ah, no…no…) at the Introduction! Wow! This was going to be a humdinger of a story, you could just sense it by her wonderful writing and based on all the knowledge, and the way in which it’s richly detailed.  Oh the lengths the US Government did to keep this one of the best kept secrets ever! Fascinating! But what I found even more fascinating was the number of women that were involved from the scientific knowledge down to the most menial of tasks required in order to unleash “The Gadget”.

Here’s what The Girls of Atomic City is all about: They came from all across the United States, to a city not found on any map.

They were forbidden to talk about their work, even to each other.

They were racing against the clock to save their country . . .  and what they created there would change the war—and the world—forever.

At the height of World War II, Oak Ridge, Tennessee, was home to 75,000 residents and was using as much power as New York City . . . but to most of the world, it was as if the town didn’t exist.

Thousands of workers (many of them young women from small towns across the South) were recruited to work in this secret city, enticed by good wages and the promise of war-ending work. But most of them never guessed what was really being made in those enormous factories in the middle of the Appalachian Mountains—until the end of the war, when Oak Ridge’s secret was revealed.

In The Girls of Atomic City, Denise Kiernan traces the astonishing story of these unsung World War II workers through interviews with dozens of surviving women workers and other Oak Ridge residents. Like The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, this is history and science made fresh and vibrant—a beautifully told, deeply researched story that unfolds in a suspenseful and exciting way. (From Goodreads)

It is meticulously researched and detailed, but the beauty of this story shines brighter thanks to Kiernan’s writing.  It felt as though you were reading an historical fiction novel. She has managed to meld together the facts with a story that unfolds as though it were fictitious. Every page was fascinating to read! She balanced the scientific facts with the profiles of just a few of the vast number of women that worked on this Project. She writes wonderfully, like my “go-to” phrase when describing an author’s writing – like butter, like poetry. She covers so very much, all the extremely interesting material, and even when she’s describing the chemistry and scientific nature of The Project, it is done so very well and written in a manner that even I (a horrendous failure of sciences in school) could understand. Not only understand, but enjoy, or rather, continue to be thoroughly intrigued.

She covers so many of the issues that presented itself with this massive undertaking. Not only of the government’s secrecy, but also the parts that cover what psychological issues this new community faced – this work, this project was so highly secret that you were separated from your spouse, or even if you were not, you were not allowed to share anything at all that occurred during your day. Imagine coming home from work and not being able to talk with your family about the little mundane or eventful things that happened at work that day? There was no way for any one to decompress after work. She also covers the unintended social experiment the CEW and its hidden location became. Everything detailed inside was all so very fascinating and so well presented.

She has quietly inserted moments that end up exploding on the page. So quietly and unassuming these words seem until they explode with their meaning and secrets. From trying to erase the memory of one soldier who has uncovered what they are about to unleash, to human experimentation, to the dangerous levels of radiation these “couriers” of the “Product” were exposed to, to the test launch conducted in New Mexico. All of these efforts, these colossal efforts were done under an incredible and amazing, iron-clad cloak of secrecy.

Also quietly placed in there, days before the release of “the Gadget” first over Hiroshima, President Truman wrote in his diary that Stalin had indicated the Japanese Emperor’s request for peace. Some of the scientists also involved wrote the President urging him to consider the “moral responsibilities”. However, there was no turning back, and much of these petitions went unsent, locked away from the President’s eyes. So then the first bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, then on Nagasaki and an intended third one was being prepared when Japan surrendered.

In all, absolutely fascinating information and a tremendously fascinating read. Just as we all here thought when we first laid eyes on this book and its description.

What is fascinating as well, are the stories of these remarkable women. They left their families behind, sometimes even their children to go to a place that could not and would not be located on any map. They were told absolutely nothing about what they were doing. All these women knew was that they would be helping to bring their brothers, cousins and fiances home from the war. For them, that was plenty enough information, and all they needed to know.

And what struck me the most as I closed this book, was the realization that the role, the innovation, the power of women, and in this case, in discovering and creating a weapon of such powerful and devastating destruction, is easily, readily and acceptably dismissed, discredited and ignored. And that the woman, Lise Meitner, that was part of the two-person team with Otto Hahn to discover fission was not even mentioned when Otto Han was awarded the 1944 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. He himself! did not even mention his partner. Nor, after all that was said and done concerning these atomic bombs, did the government ever acknowledge the work of the hundreds upon thousands of women that made it all possible. And also, of important note, there was nothing at all ever done to talk to these women, not only to thank them for their efforts, but also to just council them on the impact with what this knowledge certainly did their psyches. Again, completely dismissed and ignored! So thank you very much to Denise Kiernan for bringing their importance and their efforts forward to the public’s attention.

NPR conducted an interview with Denise about the book, you can listen to that here. The book is also out now, and available at all retailers. Denise is also doing a book tour, and one of her stops will be in Oak Ridge, Tennessee:

March 19, 6 PM:
American Museum of Science & Energy
Oak Ridge, TN

(oh how I wish I could be there for that stop!)

4 solid stars for this excellent and fascinating read. It had me and still has me thinking!  I truly enjoyed this book and am so glad we had the pleasure of reading it in advance.

I did search out Oak Ridge on the net out of interest, and it is very interesting to see how their acknowledgement of it’s beginnings are with pride on their website and many other links pertaining to Oak Ridge, TN.

The US Army Corps of Engineers also has a page showcasing these remarkable women, here.

The pictures below were all taken from The Atlantic from the article “Secret City“.

atomic girls  atomic  atomic girl

Book Review: Bridge of Scarlet Leaves

What an amazing read and an extremely well-written story! Thank you very much to Tyson Cornell at Rare Bird Lit for sending this book to us, greatly appreciated and has become a book I will cherish.

If you click on the cover, you can watch Kristina Morris, author of Bridge of Scarlet Leaves, describe her story.

I saw that this book was sometimes categorized as a “romance”. But please (if you’re not really in to those, like myself here) Do Not let this sway you from picking it up. It’s not a sappy love story (no way!), it is more a testament to remaining true and strong to your love and your decision to carry on in your belief in true love.

This is also a wonderful tale of friendship, perserverance and familial love. It even provides the reader with a strong dose of the torture and suffering that occurred in the Japanese-American war-relocation camps and POW camps. It all means a tremendously great read.

Every character portrayed in the book demonstrate their steadfast, strong-willed familial love and their determination to remain true to the one they honestly love. This unfolds beautifully as each must endure many, many harrowing trials and experiences immediately following the bombing of Pearl Harbor. The reader is treated to four main, brave, tenacious and uncomprimising characters:

Maddie: Maddie and TJ’s mother was killed in a car accident on New Year’s Eve as a result of their father’s drunken driving. Their father has been living in a semi-comatose state in a nursing home since the accident and therefore cannot reveal any truth as to what really happened that night. This forever casts a shadow over Maddie and TJ’s lives. Maddie is a brilliant violinist with aspirations to attend Juilliard. She falls in love in with Lane, TJ’s best friend and Japanese. Lane and Maddie secretly run off to be married, only to awake from their wedding night to find the Japanese have bombed Pearl Harbor.

TJ: TJ cannot overcome the loss of his mother and forgive his father for his part in this great loss. He feels he must protect and manage every aspect of Maddie’s life. TJ is bitterly angry with the news of his sister’s secret marriage to his best friend Lane, or “Tomo” and cannot forgive the betrayal by both.

Lane (Moritomo): is caught between his Japanese heritage/family obedience and his patriotism and pride as an American. With resolve, he disobeys his parents by marrying Maddie instead of going through with a pre-arranged marriage to a girl chosen for him from Japan. The future looks so bright for Lane as he has just married his true love and accepted an internship with a Californian senator. These dreams fall apart overnight with the events in Pearl Harbor.

With dread he realized: He wasn’t sure which blood was his, and which was the enemy’s.

Jo (she is featured in a lesser extent, but one of my favourites!): Jo is Maddie’s best friend and has great spunk and tenacity. She helps Maddie hide her romance with Lane from TJ and in the process falls in love with TJ. (She was a great character! She became secondary towards the end, but I really enjoyed reading of her and her growing relationship with TJ.)

So really, all of this relationship drama unfolds during the time of the US’s involvement in WWII. Already, the relationship between Maddie and Lane is fraught as inter-racial relationships are deeply frowned upon. Compounded now by the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Lane is now the enemy in the eyes of many Americans. Maddie and Lane are separated as all Japanese are forced in to internment in to what they call war relocation camps. Maddie then decides that her Juilliard dreams are to be cast aside and she volunteers to join Lane in the camps. Lane is determined to show his patriotism to the US and it comes at great cost for both.

TJ, still brewing with hatred for Lane and his betrayal of their friendship, and his confusion over his growing feelings for Jo, enlists and heads overseas. (on feelings for Jo: “They were both so much alike. Both concealing scars, having every reason to prevent another wound.”

His plane is shot down and he is captured and imprisoned in a POW camp. The torture and suffering he endures makes for more gripping reading and keeps those pages turning.

Each story line parallels and “bridges” the others. The love between Maddie and Lane strengthens and the friendship, all but thought lost by both TJ and Lane, and one where they are family now, comes to a head in a heroic and painfully heartbreaking, tear-soaked end.

“Proving myself a loyal American is nothing compared to proving myself a worthy man.” …Lane

It’s a story to not be missed! 4.5 stars for me.

A sparrow/suzume – often mentioned throughout the story….